back to article COVID-19 contact tracing apps were suggested as saviors. They sometimes delivered

As the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the COVID-19 disease it creates spread rapidly across the world in early 2020, governments that grasped the gravity of the situation wondered if technology could help them control the pandemic. Some considered open-source intelligence gathered by the likes of Facebook and Google. Others wondered if …

  1. b0llchit Silver badge

    Time travel - missed opportunity

    In November 2002 health minister Gan Kim Yong told parliament that TraceTogether had helped identify around 25,000 close contacts, of which 160 tested positive.

    He should have been able to prevent the whole disaster, informing parliament almost 17 years before the problem starts. Also, "smart" phones could have been introduced almost five years early and he would have made a ton of money. A truly missed opportunity...

    (yes, yes, a typo eraser and coat please)

    1. Adrian 4 Silver badge

      Re: Time travel - missed opportunity

      Typo excepted, that doesn't seem a great statistic. 160 positives out of 25,000 potentials.

      What was the positive rate in the control group ?

      No control group. you say ? What a surprise.

      1. veti Silver badge

        Re: Time travel - missed opportunity

        At the end of November 2020, Singapore had recorded a total of 58,218 cases, out of a population of 5.7 million. That suggests a prevalence of about 1%.

        But it's possible that the biggest contribution of the app was elsewhere. If users got a notification to isolate after they'd been exposed, that may have contributed to Singapore's success in squashing its early waves. I know a similar app here in NZ helped us for over a year, although it's pretty much abandoned now.

        1. Twanky Silver badge

          Re: Time travel - missed opportunity

          So it's possible that the contact tracing app in Singapore "may have contributed to Singapore's success in squashing its early waves." but you somehow "know a similar app here in NZ helped us for over a year".

          I would believe that with some good analysis to back it up.

          1. NeilPost Silver badge

            Re: Time travel - missed opportunity

            perhaps *living in NZ* is a good start on that, and the experience of how the app shaped life choices and descision making.

    2. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge


      Hi -- can you please email if you spot anything wrong so we can fix it?

      The year typo has been fixed.


      1. b0llchit Silver badge

        Re: Corections

        Surely, can do. However, the typo was of such finesse and quality that a tongue-in-cheek comment was way better and fun than simply having it fixed,

        Typos can be so rewarding ;-)

  2. Dan 55 Silver badge
    Big Brother

    Privacy fears

    If you flew you needed to fill in a passenger location form to enter the destination country. This has your passport number, an e-mail address, and a phone number.

    In other countries this data was collected, processed, and held by their health service/department, in the UK this data was collected, processed, and held by the Home Office.

    Enough said.

    1. Tom 7 Silver badge

      Re: Privacy fears

      It wasnt collected. Several people I know said they filled in forms and still had them when they got home. Many private flyers didnt even have to waste time filling in the forms!

      I cant work out if its was incompetence or a deliberate attempt to undermine any lockdown effects. Probably a mixture of both but with the emphasis on the later.

      1. Dan 55 Silver badge

        Re: Privacy fears

        Why would the paper copy need to be collected? You filled them in online, that's where the collection happened.

        1. Korev Silver badge

          Re: Privacy fears

          The first time I flew back to the UK after the pandemic had started, the poor woman directing the queue was so overworked she only asked to see if you had a passenger locator form and didn't actually read it...

          1. tip pc Silver badge

            Re: Privacy fears

            That still happened as recently as March,

            If you had the email saying you had completed the process they still insisted on seeing the form but wouldn’t read it, they just wanted to know you had it.

            In my case they gave you a piece of paper to hand to the person at the checkin desk, I wasn’t given a piece of paper and I had to go back to person handing them out who said I didn’t need one I eventually got the piece of paper which wasn’t looked at but put in a pile that was collected by the person checking if you had a passenger locator form to re hand out.

            If you think covid is passed on surfaces then it’s likely that each piece of paper was handled by over 7 (at least 2 airport staff) different people.

            It was all theatre, a bit like going to a testing centre 3 days prior to your trip, anxiously awaiting the result, getting to the airport where suddenly no one is socially distancing from the moment you join the communal checkin which accepts all flights so not just your destination, then crammed with hundreds of others in a can for x hours till your again in queues with strangers for passport and customs.

            Having lived like a hermit for near on 2 years it was a strange sensation needing to forget about keeping distance because it wasn’t possible.

  3. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    In the UK HMG seems to have somewhat surrendered to the "Let's just forget all about it." wing of the Conservative party so it's not surprising the whole thing is being wound down. It didn't help that the whole thing was given over to someone who's competence is among the lest trusted in the UK IT community. Also the first element - Test - seems to be overlooked; why else have free lateral flow tests been wound down? If you can't test you can't trace.

  4. anothercynic Silver badge

    Just one thing about ZOE

    ZOE is a non-government effort. The health company (started by Prof Tim Spector, who is an epidemiologist, and a couple of others) decided that they could use crowdsourcing data very quickly to see how COVID was spreading. I was one of the early ones to get into reporting my status every day. If you felt ill and got a PCR test and it proved you were positive, they wanted to know every little detail they could think of (including every symptom you were feeling). Because it actively required people to record their status every day and didn't rely on Bluetooth or other automatic means, it was somewhat more accurate and useful as a dataset.

    ZOE got funding from the government to pay for the additional stuff they were doing, and because they fed their dataset back to the NHS, it was a good alternative means to the much delayed NHS Covid app. It's that funding that has ended.

    Because everyone who signed up to the ZOE Covid study had to agree that their data would be shared with ZOE (and ZOE then anonymised it appropriately and according to proper health research standards), there was no privacy concern per se. You were part of a medical study, and as such, it was handled with appropriate constraints. It was a very useful study, and it's a shame that the government has simply gone and pulled the funding, because the "Living with Covid" strategy could (be/have been) informed by the ongoing results from it. But I guess the government now just goes "la la la, don't wanna hear it, la la la, let's waste money on other things instead".

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Just one thing about ZOE

      ZOE wasn't run by a donor, current squeeze or close friend of a cabinet minister.

      It's a failure of Tory process that it got funded at all.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    This could have al been avoided if we had just turned 5g off. I get my factoids from Facebook.

    1. TimMaher Silver badge

      Turn Bluetooth off...

      That works as well.

      1. The commentard formerly known as Mister_C

        Re: Turn Bluetooth off...

        I don't have Bluetooth enabled on my phone or 5G and I haven't caught Covid. 100% correlation.

        You can't argue with statistics like this.

        1. teknopaul Silver badge

          Re: Turn Bluetooth off...

          I have both Bluetooth and 5g and got 3 covid variants (2 after the vax)

          It seems 5G and vax are -200% effective now, ;)

          I do wonder if my health benefitted during the later infections (post vax) I felt worse, but here I am, still bathed in 5G glow, avid follower of covid stats on my phone.

        2. Primus Secundus Tertius Silver badge

          Re: Turn Bluetooth off...

          We (in the UK) got through the first wave of covid without wearing masks. But later, we were all forced to wear masks, and phase 2 came back very powerfully.

          So wearing masks spreads covid.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Turn Bluetooth off...

            I personally got corvid from my uncles cousins flatmates brothers pet chinchilla.

            1. W.S.Gosset Silver badge

              Re: Turn Bluetooth off...

              Not as silly as you intended. The stock research animals for breeding up & evaluating Covid-19 are hamsters and ferrets.

              1. Norman Nescio Silver badge

                Re: Turn Bluetooth off...

                It was, of course, in Yorkshire, as, surprisingly, it is only there it is possible for chinchillas to jointly possess an aviary, or, to put it another way, for chinchillas t'own the crows.

                I'll get my overcoat, please, and walk out into the epidemic of corvids - think Hitchcock.

        3. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Turn Bluetooth off...

          Correlation vs cause. More shark attacks when it's sunny and more ice cream sold. Coincidence? Sharks like Ice cream.

          1. Twanky Silver badge

            Re: Turn Bluetooth off...

            No. Sharks don't like ice cream. That's why they attack.

        4. W.S.Gosset Silver badge

          Re: You can't argue with statistics like this.

          This is entirely true.

  6. Howard Sway Silver badge

    Or did it have to do with the population and distrust of the government?

    I expect it had much more to do with the fact that the Isle of Wight is populated with quite wealthy, often retired people, nearly all of whom have smartphones. Newham is one of the poorest boroughs in the country, and therefore possession of a smartphone is much less likely. It really struck me when watching the government ministers bragging about the tracing app, that they just seemed to assume that everybody has a smartphone, simply because everybody THEY know has one.

    1. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

      Re: Or did it have to do with the population and distrust of the government?

      Also, some of us try to limit what leakage there is from our smartphones and will not install an app just because someone says so. I am not very trusting of your average bureaucrat's ethics as they are basically failed politicians. And depending on who they involve in the project I would be extremely wary of what the app does.

      1. veti Silver badge

        Re: Or did it have to do with the population and distrust of the government?

        That right there is exactly the kind of attitude you'd expect to find much less of on the Isle of Wight, than in a relatively poor London borough.

    2. gerryg

      Re: Or did it have to do with the population and distrust of the government?

      According to if one excludes older people then smartphone usage in the UK is pretty much universal.

      Retired people are least likely to use one.

      According to an Ofcom report in 2020: 97% AB, 96% C1, 96% C2, 89% DE use a smart phone.

      In Newham 24.4% (86,514) of the population are under 18 years, 67.8% (240,788) are aged 18 to 64 years and 7.9% (27,964) are aged 65 years and older (2020 ONS)

      In IoW 31.8% population 60+ years or over, compared with 22.5% in England and Wales. (2011 ONS)

      So while I can't necessarily challenge your assertion I doubt you can support it, either.

      1. Norman Nescio Silver badge

        Re: Or did it have to do with the population and distrust of the government?

        It would be interesting to understand the reasons why 3% of AB, 4% of C1, 4% of C2 and 11% of DE don't use smartphones. It's not a population well catered for by companies that offer all types of service methods: both iOS and Android apps*.

        *Yes, that is a clip from the The Blues Brothers, released very nearly 42 years ago.

  7. ITS Retired

    Right here is the reason for so much public facing, hard to use software.

    "The analysis points out that contact-tracers weren't involved in the app's design, so it is little wonder the software's output was not useful."

    End users are not involved in the design of the app, program, etc. Too often we are being told what we want, regardless of what we actually want or need.

  8. Claverhouse Silver badge

    Apart from not wanting, nor needing a Smartphone

    I haven't been offered or given a single test during the whole pandemic to now. Other than before an operation on my broke arm which is so fortuitous it doesn't count.

    Basically, along with no doubt millions of others, there was no way for the government to know my covid status; which implies their statistics were basically inspired guesswork anyway.

    1. W.S.Gosset Silver badge

      Re: Apart from not wanting, nor needing a Smartphone

      Yup. Coupled with people who refuse to get tested because they can't afford the faff & consequences of a positive result. Plus the high asymptomatic proportion. And so every time anyone does a blanket test of a geographic region, they "discover" that the _actual_ number of infections is a multiple of the known infections.

      The last such test I saw was Australia a few months back. The multiple varied (by location) between 2 and 4.

      That is, 50% to 75% of actual #Cases are excluded from our official #Cases.

      That is, even the very low official fatality risk is a vast over-estimate.

      The Financial Times recently dropped some numbers on the table demonstrating publicly that Omicron's risk is now lower than Flu's. I'd already identified that in Jan/Feb from the first media-released breakdown of Omicron's #cases/#deaths: Queensland's Omicron CFR is less than 0.05%. (0.0485%? Shd have written it down.) For comparison, the usual "flu deaths" figure includes all untested respiratory disease deaths, but Australia's 5yr average _solely_ Flu death rate is 0.39%.

      1. veti Silver badge

        Re: Apart from not wanting, nor needing a Smartphone

        The urban parts of Australia by now have very high vaccination rates, so a higher survival rate is to be expected.

        This "multiplier" effect may be true now, in the post-vaccine Omicron-driven phase. But it wasn't the case a year ago. You may recall the first large scale survey in Stockholm, for example, which showed that the number of people with covid antibodies closely matched the previously reported number of cases. And the experience of New Zealand, which successfully eliminated the virus and lived virtually without restrictions for more than a year - which would not have been possible if there was a large reservoir of unknown cases.

        1. W.S.Gosset Silver badge

          Re: Apart from not wanting, nor needing a Smartphone

          Just saw this.

          A/ it most certainly is NOT a new thing -- the "multiplier" has been observed since the original variant in essentially every such study across multiple countries and multiple variants.

          B/ US CDC reported recently that its USA-wide survey shows roughly 2.5 times as many infections as have been officially recorded/detected by testing. 190 million actual infections vs 80 million via testing. That's cumulative to-date, all variants. For example.

    2. W.S.Gosset Silver badge
      Thumb Up


      (Oh, and you're the first person I've seen in yonks use "fortuitous" correctly! :)

    3. bombastic bob Silver badge

      Re: Apart from not wanting, nor needing a Smartphone

      I flat-out *REFUSED* to get a stupid corona virus test for several reasons:

      * I had the damned virus before anyone (outside of China) had heard of it and got it from someone who'd been there over a week and had symptoms the day he came back to the office [and I was there for a meeting that day]. It lasted a day and returned in a milder form a week later, the first exactly 2 weeks after i was exposed.

      * I probably had a mild version of every variant and was not all cowering in fear about ANY of it. Slight fever and head cold symptoms that go away within a day. Whoopee twiddle. I did not care WHAT it was since it never really affected me. And...

      * The LAST thing *I* needed was to be QUARANTINED over a *FEVER* or a *COLD* with MILD SYMPTOMS.

      * The panic and hysteria were NAUSEATING and I pressed the "F-it" button.

      And if I am evar *MANDATED* to carry a smart phone with some stupid TRACKING [CR]APP on it, it would be with the battery REMOVED. [oops I forgot to put it in]. Last stupid mandate I completely IGNORED and nobody cared.

      And a big DOWN vote for the ENTIRE ARTICLE, and EVERY DAMNED ONE of those stupid TRACKING [CR]APPS, along with the HYSTERIA-BASED RESPONSES from gummints.

      (and I am not EVEN starting on a PROPER rant, when you look at JUST WHAT HAS HAPPENED in places like Shanghai where PEOPLE ARE LOCKED IN THEIR HOMES and SCREAMING OUT OF WINDOWS over it, or some of the more HEINOUS policies that have been implemented in AUSTRALIA of all places)

      So YEAH, the LAST thing *I* will ever be is TRACKED for ANY reason by carrying a phone with me.

      1. Smeagolberg

        Re: Apart from not wanting, nor needing a Smartphone

        >And a big DOWN vote for...along with the HYSTERIA-BASED

        >RESPONSES from gummints

        I'm sure I've read that random block-capitalisation is one symptom of long covid, although it was already a known affliction affecting some young children and a tiny proportion of adults.

  9. Adrian 4 Silver badge

    technical feasability

    Does anyone know what went wrong with the first, home-grown app ? I recall that the developers weren't allowed sufficiently low-level access to bluetooth but I don't know what it was like on Android.

    I never installed the app (and I haven't yet caught covid, fyi on the correlation/causation thread above). I felt it was technically ludicrous : there was a mild link between covid and bluetooth in the fact that neither work at long distance, but once you get down to the detail, doing anything without either overwhelming false-positives or very poor useful warnings seemed a hopeless task. Perhaps the early developers found this. The article above certainly seems to support it.

    Google and Apple, perhaps, had an interest in creating a public health positive for smartphones and avoided the negative side by leaving the statistical choice (time/strength of exposure) to appcode authors and the authorities.

    1. Vulch

      Re: technical feasability

      The first version used a centralised and not anonymous data store, Big Brother knew who you were and where you'd been. Google and Apple didn't allow that sort of app access to the low-level API so it chewed battery and I think had problems running in the background. They then switched to the anonymous decentralised model which helped with both. When chased for up to date source in their GitHub repository the developers stated that regularly updating was too difficult, and issues were either ignored or dismissed. At that point I decided I was never going to install the software and lost interest in following the development.

    2. Dan 55 Silver badge

      Re: technical feasability

      The first time they used a centralised contact match server with phone ID, location, and Bluetooth and it couldn't run in the background on iPhones and hammered the battery on Android.

      Then they tried again with the Apple/Google contract tracing API.

      The second time, they wanted to collect QR codes at venues in the same track and trace app, which was location data, so it wasn't approved by either Apple or Google.

  10. Twanky Silver badge

    Please download the spreadsheet associated with this FoI response:

    Then plot the age-standardised mortality rate from 1942-2020 (note that the data given is 'provisional')..

    2020: Worst mortality rate for 12 years in England and Wales.

    There may be similar data available for your country at or from your country's statistics agency.

    1. W.S.Gosset Silver badge

      12yrs... 2008.

      I know this makes me sound old, child, but I was alive back then, I actually LIVED through that hell year.

      And it was hell, I tell you. People living in fear, bodies piled high in the hospitals, healthcare workers collapsing, no one leaving the house, we closed the schools, smashed people with fines if they went outside, masks everywhere, the government started tracking everyone... it was a nightmare year, junior.

      To top it all off, at the end of the year, the banks collapsed and we got economic carnage to match the rest of our miserable catastrophised god-forsaken lives.

      Truly, it was the end of times.

      1. Twanky Silver badge
    2. veti Silver badge

      I don't know why you're messing about with year-old FOI requests, when precisely this work has already been done for you and freely published.

      1. Twanky Silver badge

        Thanks for the link - though it's not precisely the same: p-scores are a variation on standard deviations which effectively show how unusual a peak is (2020/21 was certainly unusual). I was looking at the long(er) term trends to set the expectation against which to measure the excess.

        Sweden 2020: worst mortality rate for 8 years.

        1. T. F. M. Reader Silver badge

          Statistics are tricky

          Excess mortality is, indeed, the only parameter that makes sense in the context. Anything else will be affected by differences in testing, counting, transparency, etc., including "of Covid" vs. "with Covid" and what not.

          Having said that, the material in the link pulls my eyebrow up. Annual data from 2015-2019? No way you can get significance from a sample of 5. (Aside: their "P-score" is not the p-value, which is the probability that the observed effect could happen by chance. You cannot get low p-value, and thus a high confidence that there is an effect, from a sample of 5) Besides, why use death counts? Population changes, too - use death rates (per 100K, per million, whatever - I found this normalization important, see below).

          Next comment: "worst mortality for 8 years" means either "worst mortality over a very short period of time" or "nothing very special" (if the time series is actually a lot longer).

          I did a comparison of 2020 mortality for the country I live in (hit by Covid as everyone else, several lockdowns, 2020 saw no vaccinations anywhere in the world, etc.), based exclusively on published data from our equivalent of ONS. I checked normalized (by population) mortality for 2000-2019 against 2020 (had to wait till the final figures for the latter were published).

          To my surprise, the 2020 mortality was low against the previous 20 years - lower than either the mean or the median of the control sample. I struggle to see how lockdowns could save many lives to offset presumed Covid-related excess deaths. E.g., annual deaths in traffic accidents are low here (maybe ~20 times lower than deaths officially attributed to Covid in 2020). 20 years seems to be a short enough period to discount advances in medical care as a significant confusion factor (the country has advanced medical care in general). That was, in fact, a factor in my decision to limit the time series.

          2020 mortality turned out relatively high against the previous 10 years, but not the highest. I have no idea what caused, e.g., 2012 to be so bad here. Even if 2020 mortality is high compared to the previous 5 years (I have not checked) the result can't be significant

          The exercise was done purely for curiousity's sake. My conclusion: mortality in 2020 was nothing particularly special in this particular neighbourhood in this millennium.

          I assume anyone can repeat the exercise for, say, UK after trawling ONS for some more data.

          Disclaimer: the above should not be construed to imply that Covid is not a very serious disease. It obviously is, for some groups of people at least. I offer no firm explanation for the (surprising, for me) result. One may hypothesize that the fact that the life expectancy of the patients most likely to die of Covid (old and vulnerable) was something like 3 months might have something to do with it, but that's no proof. I didn't do any age-adjusted analysis.

          1. Twanky Silver badge

            Re: Statistics are tricky

            Thank you for checking.

            I've so far checked UK, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark by calculating annual age-standardised mortality rates from death and population data downloaded from HMD (using the European Standard Population 2013 age standardisation). In each case a long period (50 years or more) of declining (improving) mortality rate seems to be levelling off at around 1000 (1% of the population dying each year) with a spike in 2020 which compares with the rate 8-12 years previously. Other countries had not (last time I checked - a few months ago now) released 2020 data to HMD - or HMD had not published it for some reason. I'm looking forward to USA releasing its 2020 stats to HMD.

            The remaining question is whether 2020 (and later) would have been worse without contact tracing, curfews, isolation etc - but there's almost no good empirical evidence as there's no 'control' data to compare against.

    3. bombastic bob Silver badge

      how much of that mortality was attributable to "the virus" and how much was from:

      * untreated medical conditions OTHER than "the virus"

      * drug abuse

      * psychological (including suicide)

      * stress-induced (like heart attacks and some strokes)

      * outright dangerous behavior driven by anger over the lockdowns, etc.

      There are many SECONDARY causes of death not directly attributable to "the virus" that have SIGNIFICANTLY increased since January of 2020 and I have only listed a FEW of them. But they COULD be attributed to THE POLICIES FORCED UPON US BY GOVERNMENTS....

      1. Twanky Silver badge

        In England and Wales in 2020, suicide and homicide did not significantly increase compared with previous years according to ONS. Annual data on cause of death for 2021 has not yet been released (probably will be in July 2022).

        Where can we download the data for USA?

      2. Roland6 Silver badge

        Love the direction of your logic:

        Not guilty your honour, it wasn't the bullet I shot into their head that killed them, it was their untreated medical condition...

  11. FlamingDeath Silver badge

    Tagged and tracked like pets

  12. iron Silver badge

    > Apple completed the operating system-level integration of the contact tracing API in September 2019.

    Either that date is a mistake or Apple built COVID tracking functionality into iOS before the pandemic started?!? How did they know what was coming? Hmmmm.

    1. Twanky Silver badge

      I'm sure the date is not a mistake. Apple built the tracking ability into iOS to suit their own purposes. They were then in a position to say: Look! isn't this useful? - and then get support to develop it further.

    2. Steve Button Silver badge

      They knew because Billy Gates told them right around the time he bought a ton of shares in little known company BioNTech.... Nah just kidding of course that didn't happen a few months before covid was first discovered.

    3. Richard 12 Silver badge

      Air Tags

      As far as I recall, the iOS tracking was orginally for Apple Air Tags and similar "lost device" tracking.

      Contract tracing is merely a happy byproduct.

    4. Smeagolberg

      >How did they [Apple] know what was coming? Hmmmm.

      Hmmmm, indeed. Covid made in China... iThings made in China... Coincidence? Better check the facts on Facebook.

  13. W.S.Gosset Silver badge

    "Baking these functions into the operating system..."

    ...alarms the hell out of me. For the opportunities it provides for involuntary abuse by bureaucratic creep.

    Which the Covid debacle has demonstrated comprehensively is leapt upon and maximised, and very hard to roll back.

    1. Roland6 Silver badge

      Re: "Baking these functions into the operating system..."

      I would be more alarmed by the opportunities these functions provide to FB et al.

      As the functions are baked into the OS, it is only a matter of time before the marketing droids decide they can be used to generate revenue.

  14. Christian Berger

    Well we knew that their use was rather limited

    However, at least in Germany they actually have turned into a beacon of hope, but not in the way one would expect.

    The German tracing app CWA (Corona Warn App), not only followed the minimal standards you would expect, like having public source code for the app, no they have public source code for all components including public documentation on the rationale behind the scheme they used.

    And the design was very decent trying to keep the advantages without compromising privacy. Essentially it was done in a way you only had to expose yourself when you got tested positive.

    Now the main point of criticism was that it was hugely expensive... until the Luca App came along which claimed to do the same thing, but was developed a lot less competently yet charged a similar amount. While the CWA people actively engaged with the security community, for example by giving talks at hacker conferences, the Luca people only complained that people were complaining about basic defects of it.

  15. crap

    The Canadian government use the apps to spy on Canadians:

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